The Trouble with Harold Ford, Jr.

If you believe, as I do, that with the retirement of Daniel Patrick Moynihan from the U.S. Senate the brightest flame in government was snuffed, you might also marvel at how the seat that once belonged to the distinguished gentleman from New York has been eyed and picked over by only the least worthy successors. Clinton, Kennedy, Gillibrand -- two beneficiaries of their own surnames with a shared sense of entitlement the size of the Hudson River, and one gubernatorial appointment who has so far made cheerful consensus and a perfect NRA rating the fresh face of New York exceptionalism.

To this sad assembly it seemed natural, not to say foreordained, that Harold Ford, Jr., a former representative from Tennessee and lately an MSNBC news analyst, Merrill Lynch executive, and Democratic Leadership Council chairman, should announce his membership.

If you read closely Ford’s extensive interview with Michael Barbaro of the New York Times this month -- no easy feat in itself -- then you came away with the following understanding of the prospective legislator:

1. Even though he donated to Kristen Gillibrand’s campaign two days after she’d been appointed senator in 2008, and did so solely at the request of an unnamed mutual friend, Ford sees no contradiction in opposing her now or in mildly assailing her legitimacy as unelected.

2. Most of Ford’s time in Manhattan has been spent being driven from his home to the MSNBC studio on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue -- except when it’s too cold and difficult to hail a cab; then he takes the subway.

3. Ford took a guided tour of the five boroughs with Sir Harold Evans and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and because their helicopter landed in Staten Island, he can safely say he’s been there.

4. Ford’s appreciation of New York football is limited to the time he’s spent at either team’s home venue as the invited guest of the respective owners of the Jets and Giants (the Jets win by that metric).

5. Ditto baseball (the Yanks take it).

6. Ford became a supporter of gay marriage because of the political pressure he faced as an opponent of it.

Just as your mandible begins its slow ascent back into place, Ford outdoes himself as a shameless carpetbagger in yet another hometown newspaper, the Daily News, announcing that he’s a regular Joe Chardonnay, chauffeured to work only once a week, and on strict network executive orders. Oh, and he “loves the smell of New York,” a claim that not even the Tammany princeling Al Smith, who professed to be educated at the fish markets of Fulton Street, ever hazarded.

As the blogger Adam Holland reminded me recently, there are other, more sobering reasons why Gotham doesn’t need Ford.

In August 2008, Ford mentored a Democratic primary candidate for his former congressional seat from the ninth congressional district of Tennessee, located in Shelby County and which encompasses most of Memphis. Ford’s protégé was Nikki Tinker, who was challenging the more liberal incumbent of her party, Steve Cohen, who in the event won the nomination and then re-election.

Cohen was originally elected in 2006 after defeating Tinker in that primary as well. His success represented a regional milestone as he became the only white congressman from a black-majority Southern district, a fact that rather upset Tinker, who, in her second run against him, took the tack of manufacturing or condoning anti-Semitic ads against Cohen. The most notorious of these was a semi-literate leaflet produced by Rev. George Brooks of Murfreesboro, TN, a city that falls outside the ninth district, that read:

Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen and the Jews Hate Jesus. So Memphis Christians must united and support ONE Black Christian to represent Memphis in the United State Congress in 2008. Simply because this Congressional district is predominantly black. And Christian, in terms of religion, who love and believe in JESUS, while Jews do not.